Photo Credit: CGI University / Boise State University Student Group
Aug 28
August 28, 2015

From Service Trips to Start-ups: CGI U Students Respond to Climate-Related Disasters


This week, the Clinton Global Initiative convened a special event, “Building a Resilient Future,” in New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Members of the CGI community who attended the working meeting on disaster recovery, resilient infrastructure, and community revitalization included New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and leaders from organizations such as the Ford Foundation, Global Green USA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the American Institute of Architects.

As CGI members from business, government, and philanthropy continue to strengthen response and resilience around the world, a younger generation has also been inspired to take up civic engagement in disaster-struck communities. Over the years, CGI University (CGI U) students have made Commitments to Action in response to some of the biggest crises of the last decade, including Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

President Bill Clinton established CGI U in 2007 to engage young people in thinking about solutions to problems all over the world. Here are a few of the ways that college students have taken up the challenge in the wake of major disasters.


In 2009, a group of students from Boise State University saw an opportunity to help damaged New Orleans-area schools, some of which were still recovering four years after Hurricane Katrina. Through a CGI U commitment, the undergraduates decided to organize a community service spring break trip to help rebuild battered and abandoned schools.

“Obviously, living in Idaho, that’s about as far removed from the actual issue as you can get,” said Tabatha Renz, one of the organizers of the trip. “But we knew things were not really where they should be in New Orleans.”

Although some questioned the impact that college students could make so many miles away from their home base, Renz said they ultimately were able to fund and organize a trip for 20 students. “We didn’t listen to the people who told us we wouldn’t make a difference,” she said. “We went down there anyway.” 

We didn’t listen to the people who told us we wouldn’t make a difference. 


Once the group arrived in New Orleans, they decided to ask the community what they needed the most rather than force their own agenda. The students learned that they could be most helpful by installing eco-friendly lightbulbs in nearby homes and tutoring elementary school children who faced upcoming standardized tests.

“It was a really good experience,” said Nico Diaz, another organizer of the trip. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”


In the aftermath of Katrina, many of the commitments developed by CGI U students included service trips that focused on rebuilding homes ravaged by the storm. Meanwhile, others like Ting Chiu of Lafayette College worked to strengthen a different kind of foundation.

In 2010, Ting and her student team made a CGI U commitment focused on repopulating the Lower Ninth Ward through revitalization and beautification projects. They centered their approach on empowerment to make sure that the changes would be sustainable.

“After Katrina, there was a lot of damage, but it wasn’t just to houses and jobs,” Ting said.

One of their major goals was increasing access to fresh vegetables and produce in the food deserts that had formed after the storm. To do that, she and her team partnered with local leaders to bring many of the community’s existing urban gardens and farms back to life. 

After Katrina, there was a lot of damage, but it wasn’t just to houses and jobs.

“Once the community leaders realize that they have the ability to take charge, that’s what’s most important,” Ting said. “We helped strengthen a group of community members who became leaders. And even after we leave, that doesn’t change. The leaders are still going to be leaders; they can still spearhead their own projects.”

In fact, she said, one of their local partners is still revitalizing community gardens in New Orleans to this day.


As a student at California Polytechnic State University, Tricia Compas-Markman took a different approach to helping those affected by natural disasters. Her 2008 commitment aimed to create an easier way to provide clean drinking water to communities affected by natural disasters during the critical period of time before water infrastructure comes back online. Through her commitment, she developed a lightweight device that has the potential to reduce exposure to deadly water-borne diseases.

“While I was in undergrad, that’s when Hurricane Katrina and the Southeast Asian Tsunami happened,” she said. “That’s when you started to hear about all this devastation on the news, and from my point of view, about the need for compact, lightweight, easily deployable household drinking water devices. Clean drinking water was such a huge need, whether you were in the U.S. or in Southeast Asia.”

The result is DayOne Response, a start-up that sprouted from her award-winning CGI U commitment. The now 5-year-old company works closely with Proctor & Gamble to distribute waterbags and purifiers that can safely cleanse contaminated water. They’ve deployed more than 10 million liters of clean water via the DayOne Waterbags in over 21 countries since the launch.

DayOne Response has taken Tricia to disaster-prone areas all over the world, most recently to Nepal following the earthquakes in April. She says that the victims left an indelible impression.

“Something that’s been consistent through all my travels is the resiliency, the pick-me-back-up spirit that a lot of people have, even though their lives have been turned upside down,” she said. “It’s pretty mind boggling to see that kind of strength and hope in the people I meet.”

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